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Iraqi Christians' Path of Persecution
Not heresy hunters, nor Islamic purges, nor even Mongol hordes could wipe Christianity from Iraq.
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While the winds of an Iraq war are gusting ominously, peace advocates from across the religious and ethnic spectrum are joining forces. Pope John Paul II turned more than a few heads on Valentine's Day by hosting Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz at the Vatican and asking God to bless Iraq. But these two men share more than just a desire to avoid war: Aziz is a baptized Chaldean Catholic—Iraq's branch of Roman Catholicism.
Given the ruthless and bloody history of Iraq's Ba'athist regime, critics have questioned Aziz's Christian credentials. Still, the high profile of a Catholic in Saddam Hussein's overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim government has become a source of intrigue and curiosity. And it raises the larger question: How has Christianity fared in the history of Iraq—the geographic area that was once Mesopotamia? A few weeks ago we examined the origins of Iraq's Christian minority from Pentecost until Constantine's conversion in A.D. 312. Now we pick up their history from there.
Despite severe Persian Empire persecution, the ancient Mesopotamian Church blossomed during the fourth century while allied with Antioch, which was a major early hub of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In A.D. 410, at the Council of Seleucia, the Persian church declared its separation from Antioch.
Soon after, these Persian Christians fell under the influence of Nestorian teachings. Nestorius (d. 451), a patriarch of Constantinople, was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Church for leading his followers to question Jesus' dual nature as fully God and fully man. Many scholars of theology now believe poor Nestorius was more misguided than mischievous. He did not intend to separate the divine and human natures of Christ into distinct persons. But in his zeal to distinguish between those natures, he used unguarded language that led to his banishment and the persecution of his followers, who began fleeing the Roman Empire in the fifth century to seek refuge in Persia and Mesopotamia.
Over the next 600 years, the Nestorian Church developed into one of the most successful missionary-sending churches in all Christendom. Active in international trade, Nestorians spread as far as northern China. Their influence waned only when Islam gained regional dominance around A.D. 1000.
Islam first appeared on the Mesopotamian scene in the seventh century. Ironically, it got its first and biggest boost from a Christian.
At the time, the Persian Empire still exerted considerable influence. Persian ruler Chosroes II conquered Constantinople in 605 and by 615 and possessed every major city in the formerly Roman-controlled Middle East. But thanks to their leader's unquenchable lust for women, the Persians' Empire began crumbling by the mid-seventh century.
Despite his harem of three thousand wives and twelve thousand female slaves, Chosroes II demanded to have a woman named Hadiqah, the daughter of a Christian Arab named Na'aman. Na'aman stood up to Chosroes II because he wouldn't allow his daughter to marry a Zoroastrian. Chosroes II, enraged, trampled him with an elephant. Infuriated and emboldened after hearing the story, Arabs rose up and thoroughly defeated Chosroes II. The victory marked the beginning of a period of Arab assertiveness that culminated in the later Islamic conquests.
By 1000, an entrenched and powerful Islam had greatly curtailed the Christian influence in Persia and Mesopotamia. Already suffering from Islam's territorial and religious gains, the Nestorian Church was further weakened by internal dissent and corrupt church leadership.
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